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Nineteenth Century Hindu Reform Movements
Lecture notes by Clinton Bennett
1) Universalist
Background: Christian missionary/British condemnation of idol worship/ superstition/sati
(widow self-immolation).
The elevation of everything Western over everything India - yet Bengali cultural
renaissance was aided by William Carey (1761-1834).
For a fictional but accurate portrayal of Western and missionary attitudes to Indian
religion and culture (as decadent, decayed) see Vikram Chandra's red earth, pouring rain
(1995, Boston, Little, Brown and Company eg p 198, p 228)
Rammonhum Roy (1774-1833)
Brahman/studied in Tibet/senior East Indian Co. civil servant/retired early.
Translated Upanishads into Bengali.
Helped Serampore missionaries with Bible translation.
Joined them in condemning sati/superstition but argued that true Hinduism is
monotheistic and monotheistic and "protestant" (no images/or avatars).
Admired Jesus but did not accept his divinity. Baptist Press (1816) published some of his
writing to correct former picture. Nature/mystical - rational religion.
Formed BRAHMO SAMAJ (1828) - protestant-type services. Preached ethical
monotheism. Took western concepts of liberty but criticized British power in India.
Died/buried in Bristol, England visiting Unitarian Church.
William Adam, a Baptist missionary, became Unitarian (Calcutta Mission).
Tagore family - Debendranath(1817 - 1905), Rabrindranath (1861 - 1941), India’s only
Nobel Laureate for Literature (1913) (author of Bangladesh and Indian national anthems).
Aged 51 - visiting England - poems accidentally came to notice of W.B. Yeats, Gitanjali.
Mystical - romantic- God in nature. Eclectic/embraces cultural diversity.
Founded Santi Niketan - combining Indian/Western education.
Admired British literature/values but not practice. Returned Knighthood (1915) after
Amritsar massacre (1919).
Admired Jesus as Son of Man, who seeks the last, the lost and the least. Nehru called him
a great internationalist. He synthesized Eastern and Western ideas.
Ramakrishna (1836-86)
Brahman (Bengal). Priest at Kali Temple.
Experienced inner-visions of Kali. Became celibate within marriage.
His wife, whom he worshipped as a manifestation of the Mother, served him in the
Taught by a woman Tantric mistress to "control passion." Reached nirvikaslpa samadhi
(subject-object annihilated.)
Turned to adoration of Krishna - expressing love of God through devotion.
Received visions of Krishna, and other Gods (including Christ): lead to the same goal, the
One, singular and eternal Being who is absolute bliss and knowledge.
Different Gods/religions represent different aspects of the One. Attracted mainly middle
class disciples.
Vivekananda (1863-1902)
Brought Hinduism to the West/first advocate of Hinduism as a "world religion."
Helped to disseminate Ramakrishna’s Neo-Vedantic version of Hinduism.
Spent years wondering about India as a mendicant.
Achieved samadhi. Developed a social ethic - Brahman within all means that all can
realize their true identity/all are equal/to be valued regardless of caste/gender.
Karma as "service"/without attachment to result.
Founded Vedanta Society (in USA)
Where he attended the Parliament of the World’s Religions, Chaicago (1893)’ spent 6 at
Stone Ridge, New York (near New Paltz).
Founded Ramakrishna Mission in India (schools, hospitals throughout India-consciously
modeled on Christian predecessors).
The scientific and socially aware version of Hinduism appealed to many English
educated Indians - they need not to apologize for being Hindu. Vivekananda saw the
West as materialistic/India as more spiritual. Traveled to the West to reverse the
missionary pattern! India needed
He thought Christianity exclusive - and offered a pluralistic Hinduism.
"Let us….find God not only in Jesus of Nazareth but in all the Great Ones that have
preceded him, in all that came after him, and all that are yet to come. ….They are all pure
and unselfish." (Christ the Messenger, p 153)
All imaginines of the Absolute are limited.
"The function of Prophets is to communicate as much of … transcendental truth as
human being are able to comprehend at any particular time. The apparent differences
among the messages … are due to their different social and cultural contexts, not to ant
fundamental religious disagreement…" (Christ the Messengerpp 138 - 153, The
Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda,Vol 1VCalcutta, Advaita Ashrama, 1963 - 66)
Hinduism as "global". God is transcendent/attributeless/but revealed through innumerable
Gods and teachers. Vedas = the world’s most ancient wisdom/revelation.
Pure principle, not ‘Person’. More interested in the truth of a text than in its historicity.
All religious experience valid, religions are equal but best interpreted within Vedanta.
Vedanta and science are compatible; both posit a 'self-evolving cause".
Wrote 8 Volumes of Works.
2) National/Exclusivist Hinduism
Shares aspects of Vivenkanandra's view:
•India as spiritual
•Vedas as ancient knowledge
•Ultimately, the Absolute is as articulated in the Upanishads (not as in the Bible!)
But valued all religions, wanted mutual enrichment and world unity.
Dayanadra Sarasvarti (1824 - 83)
Born Gujerat/Brahmin/Shaivite.
Saw mice eating prasad and rejected "idol"/ "image" veneration.
Became mendicant/quest for truth.
Old guru predicted he would restore Vedic Hinduism/influenced by Rammohum
Roy/denounce images/superstition of Puranas/Epics to be replaced by the
Vedas/Upanishads formless, omnipotent, transcendant God - accepted Manu.
Mukti not union with Brahman but eternal freedom from suffering/soul retains
1875 founded Arya Samaj. Responded to Christian attack the Vedas are the most ancient
scriptures, contain all truth.
"They are absolutely free from error and are an authority unto themselves." Gospels are
silly and absurd. Hinduism is rational, Christianity is irrational.
"No educated man can ever believe in such things as are opposed to all kinds of
evidence…and to the laws of nature. Only people in the state of barbarism can believe
them. It does not become educated and civilized men to do so…."(from The Light of
Truth; see extract in Paul J Griffith'sChristianity Through Non-Christian Eyes, NY,
Orbis, 1990.
Amongst aims
•Reconversion of Muslims, Sikhs, Christians.
•Promoted social reforms
•Marriage by choice
•Widow/widower remarriage
Defended varna as socially pragmatic (similar here to Gandhi).
Promoted Hindu unitiy/Samskrit/Hindi through its schools-Vedic/Aryan culture. Pride in
India identity/history/culture. Pride in India’s past/present/future capability.
Rejected pluralism in/out of Hinduism.
The RSS (Rastriya SvayamSvek Sangh) 1925
Cultural not political organization.
Promotes Hindu identity/members dress in black and participate in military exercises.
India for Hindus only Gandhi assassinated by RSS member.
BJP (1951) + regional parties eg ShivSena (Mumbhai) – BJP in government 98-2004.
Agenda: India as Hindu state informed by Hindu values, not Western.
Hindutva: (concept invented by Vinayak Domodar Savarkar) distinguishes Hindu dharma
(religion) from Hinduism as social/political entity - the first is pluralist/the second is
intolerant of diversity. Stormed Ayodhia 1992.
Increasingly popular: targets Christians, Muslims, Westernized Indians, secularism Lots
of material at:
Extracts from the writers discussed above can be found in Ainslee T Embree Sources of
Indian Tradition VOLUME Two, 1988, NY, Columbia University Press.
© Clinton Bennett 2009